For the past few days, I’ve been mulling over whether to change my rating from three stars (“liked it”) to four (“really liked it). But I do just “like it,” so I’m sticking with my original three-star rating.
It’s taken me a long time to actually get myself to read this book. I think this is the third time I’ve had it out from the library, but it’s the first time I got past the book-flap description and effusive reviews of all things Franzen. Well, and the “Oprah’s Book Club” medallion on the front cover.
Whenever someone says, “Oh, I just couldn’t like this because there was too much hype around it,” I kind of roll my eyes (by “kind of” I mean I just mentally roll my eyes. In reality I probably cock one eyebrow. This is my stock facial expression for everything from incredulity to confusion to sarcastic agreement). Hype, shmype, I think. You either like it or you don’t. Why should hype change my feelings about a book?
However, I do find that hype sort of ups the ante around expressing my opinion of a book. If I love a hyped book, I’m a sheepish follower. If I hate it, there’s the burden of citing evidence to support my against-the-grain reaction. But my reaction to most books is, “Yeah, sure. It was pretty good,” which somehow falls short when reviewing a much-hyped tome.
So, why didn’t I love this book?
Well, it might have been a result of the snippets of reviews and interviews I’d heard on the radio in the few minutes before my children began demanding Music Together CDs, but for nearly the first half of the book, I thought Franzen was overly aware of his awesomeness. It wasn’t until this self-consciousness faded that his writing actually began to live up to the hype. Or perhaps I just started getting into the story enough that I didn’t mind the self-conscious style. But now I’m arguing in a circle, so I think I’ll just stick with my original point: I didn’t like that Franzen seemed to be overly aware of his coolness.
Here’s one example: a nearly page-long sentence towards the beginning of the book. I’ve already returned the book to the library, so I can’t quote it, even in part, but I recall while reading it I went from, “Okay, I’m having trouble following this sentence. Let’s stop and trace it back,” to “Holy cow, this is a long sentence. What is it he’s trying to do here?” to “Oh. *GROAN*.” That last happened when he made a statement to the effect, “and this sentence is really long and the person thinking it is totally confused so he’s going to stop thinking it now.” My impression was that Franzen was inserting himself as the author into the novel by writing about his awareness of the pointlessness of the ridiculously long sentence rather than editing it into something less self-conscious and, well, better. It was just overly precious and “ain’t I a stinker?” to me.
The other thing was the length. I do not mind long books. I also don’t mind long movies, but I don’t want to become aware that my butt’s asleep until the closing credits. There was a sizable chunk in the middle when I forgot just how long I’d been slogging away at this book, when it finally seemed that the work I’d done getting through the preciousness of the beginning sections was paying off. Then the last fifty or so pages was just kind of, “Okay, so the book is ending now. I get it. Let’s get to it already.”
I liked the character development. I especially liked Denise and Al. I enjoyed being inside Al’s hallucinations, and I enjoyed seeing the generational differences that led Al to make self-sabotaging choices to protect those he loves. I enjoyed watching Denise’s helplessness to stop a collection of behaviors of which she was painfully aware. I could relate to the nature of her crisis if not the facts of it.
Really, there’s a helplessness to all of the Lamberts’ situations. I guess the redemption comes with the varying degrees of change towards self-determination that each is able to make by the end of the story. This was satisfying (to a point), just not as entertaining as I might have liked.
So, like I said: I liked it, but I didn’t really like it. I liked it enough that I would still consider reading Freedom but not enough that I’m going to bump it to the top of my to-read list.